Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Regional Editors and Broadcasters

April 18, 1985

The President. Well, everybody seems to be in place. Thank you all, and welcome to the White House. I'm always pleased to be able to meet with you who operate in the business in which every minute counts, where everyone struggles to maintain the highest quality while, at the same time, fighting against an ever-approaching deadline. Making a decision under pressure of a deadline can be helpful.

America is facing a deadline, of sorts, in the form of an ever-increasing national debt. Under the pressure building to come to grips with this problem, we have an opportunity to make real progress cutting spending, progress that should have been made a long time ago.

Now, it's not going to be easy. We went the extra mile to reach an agreement with the Republican leadership of the Senate, and I agreed to compromise concerning defense and domestic spending issues. Now, it may be hard to do, but it's about time that everybody in government gritted their teeth and started being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

The choice is not, as some would have us believe, between cutting spending and raising taxes. The public doesn't want a tax increase, and more to the point, tax increases will not lower the level of deficit spending. Tax increases will not reduce government's demand on the private economy, which is the core of the problem. Tax increases would only serve to kick us back into recession, leading to higher deficits.

When it comes to taxes, what we need is simplification and reform, not increases. I think we can and will simplify the system and significantly reduce personal and corporate tax rates. We can lay the foundation for lower deficits and a vigorous expanding economy.

I see a consensus building on the idea of tax simplification. And the last few days' news should really make that build fast. If we can also agree on reasonable cuts in spending, there's every reason for optimism about America's economic future.

For years, we've known that we must get our fiscal house in order. Now, we have a proposal to do so that will encourage strong and steady growth without raising taxes, without jeopardizing assistance to the needy, and without endangering our security.

You know, when John F. Kennedy said to us 24 years ago, "Ask not what your country can do for you," the Federal Government wasn't doing nearly as much as it's doing today. And that's why it's time, here in 1985, to remember the second part of what J.F.K. said, "Ask what you can do for your country." And in doing that, support this fair and responsible proposal to get spending under control.

The news media is a vital part of decisions like this. That's why I'm talking about it here. Through you, people are made aware of the issues at hand and the alternatives and the consequences. Your function is vital to the viability of democracy. Without a free press democracy won't work, and all of our other rights would be in jeopardy.

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted at gatherings such as this as saying, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Of course, he said that before he was President. [Laughter]

One of the first institutions to be attacked by tyrants, whether they're dictators of the left or right, is the press. We've seen this happen far too often, and it's happening in Nicaragua today. It shouldn't be forgotten that the one incident that precipitated the uprising against the Somoza dictatorship was the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa, the nation's largest and fiercely independent newspaper. Yet control of the press under the Somoza dictatorship, which was decried by the Sandinistas, was miniscule compared to the ironfisted censorship now endured today by Nicaraguan journalists.

Humberto Belli, former editorial page editor of La Prensa, details this tragedy in his book, "Nicaragua, Christians Under Fire." It describes attacks by Sandinista mobs, official closings, the censorship of the news, the kidnaping and beating of reporters. It should be on the reading list of every journalist.

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Jr., who took his father's place as editor of La Prensa, watched the insidious destruction of press freedom and the suppression of other fundamental human rights by the Communist regime, and he fled the country.

Today news in Nicaragua is as controlled as that in any Eastern European state. Even a broadcast of religious services has been interfered with. The papers are filled with what the Communists consider to be good news. And as Senator Pat Moynihan once observed, countries with newspapers filled with good news are likely to have jails filled with good people.

And the jails are being filled with good people. Recently, we learned that 10 or 11 members of the Social Christian Party were rounded up and imprisoned. To force them to confess to being counterrevolutionaries, more than a hundred family members of these political prisoners were also arrested. And that's the kind of country the Sandinistas are building.

The other night, I told of what was happening to those 10 or 11 prisoners. And it was straight out of the Cuban handbook. They're put in overheated, dark cells. Then they are fed at varying intervals, like 12 hours between 2 meals, but giving you the next meal 2 hours later and so forth. All of it to create a disorientation and make it easier to break them down.

This pattern, as I say, we've seen before. Bigger jails are being built, and they're called relocation camps. Refugees are pouring out of the country. What we're witnessing in Nicaragua is the imposition, with ever-increasing intensity, of a pro-Soviet dictatorship, serving as a base camp for the spread of communism in our hemisphere.

Several years ago, there was honest disagreement over the nature of the Sandinista regime. That regime had been obscuring its true goals, deceiving its own supporters, and using a reformist cover to lull the press and potential adversaries. But by now there have been too many incautious statements, leaked memos, and secretly recorded speeches to deny the violent character and intent of this dictatorship.

The Miami Herald, which only 8 months ago had not come to this conclusion, recently editorialized that the Sandinistas are indeed trying to establish another Cuba and that this is a severe threat to Central America and to our own national security.

If we permit the Soviets, using the Sandinistas, to establish a beachhead on the American mainland and to spread their subversion, the free world will face a major challenge to the geopolitical balance of power. Economic instability, political subversion, and terrorism and a flood of refugees will likely be the price of our paralysis. We could turn around one day and find a string of pro-Soviet dictatorships in Central America and a threat to our southern border.

Congress had better come to grips with just how high the stakes are if Central America is lost. I'm asking Congress to work with me to support our peace proposal and not to desert those who are struggling for democracy against the Communists. Together, we can prevent a crisis from happening.

And I'd like to request something of you, as well. I'm not asking for stories in support of my program in Central America. I only hope that the news media takes the time and effort to present both sides.

The Communist disinformation machine is hard at work. We have reason for concern in this account about charges against the freedom fighters. For example, the falsehood that the democratic resistance is mainly composed of ex-backers of Somoza, and this is patently untrue. Yet when voiced by apologists for the Sandinista regime, that charge often goes unchallenged.

Last week, a major publication disclosed that in handling the story of alleged crimes committed by the Nicaraguan democratic resistance, it relied on information thought to be from an independent investigation. As it turned out, the supposed investigation had been carried out by people closely aligned with the Sandinistas and was done in close collaboration with that regime.

One national publication had the courage to admit the mistake of giving credence to the report. How many other broadcast and print journalists didn't bother to correct the record and just shrugged off the whole incident?

Accurate information about what is happening in Central America is essential. And I know that your readers and your listeners can count on you. That's what freedom is all about.

And again, I'm most grateful for your being here. And I'm going to quit doing a monolog now and figure on a dialog. All right.


Q. Mr. President, we all know about the situation in Nicaragua and the threat it represents for this country and the hemisphere, but yet, don't you think that the people of the United States have gotten used to having, 90 miles away in Cuba, a Communist dictatorship, a sworn enemy?

The President. Do I think that they have become used to it, you say? I've never thought about that before, but this could be possible, that they've kind of wiped it out of their minds. I don't think, in government, we can afford to.

Q. But yet it's the source.

The President. Yes, it is the source of the subversion that is taking place. And it's not alone in Nicaragua; there it's proceeded to the point of a revolutionary government, the Sandinistas. But we do know that throughout all of Latin America, under various names, there are guerrilla groups. And invariably, they have received their training, and they received their support and encouragement from Cuba. And they are assailing the duly elected governments in many of the democracies there in Latin America.


Q. Mr. President, to change the subject briefly, this is the month that marks the 10th anniversary of American disengagement from Vietnam. I wondered if you could give us a single recollection that you have, a vivid recollection of that time. And also, sir, tell us what lesson you believe that we've learned as a result of that experience.

The President. I hope we've learned some lessons. My recollections—I was Governor at the time when that was going on. I was burned in effigy on every campus in California. Things have changed since then.

Oh, there are many memories. And one of the first would have to be that with all that was going on and with all the propaganda here in our own country and the forces that were rising up in opposition to that war was the unselfish heroism of the young men and women in our military who were over there and giving their lives and fighting and who believed in the cause they were fighting for.

I think if I had to come out with one thing learned, I would have to say that never again must a government of the United States ask young men to go out and fight and die for a cause that we're unwilling to win. And that was the great tragedy-that was the great disgrace, to me, of Vietnam—that they were fed into this meatgrinder, and yet, no one had any intention of allowing victory.

Well, the truth of the matter is, we did have victory. And incidentally, could I just say, one complaint that I have: We continue to talk about losing that war. We didn't lose that war. We won virtually every engagement. The Tet offensive was distorted back here in the reporting. That was a victory for our side.

But what happened? We signed the peace accords, having built up the South Vietnamese Army to where we thought that with our equipment and all, they could defend themselves. And we made a pledge to them that if the North Vietnamese violated the cease-fire, the peace accords, and attacked, that we would supply the fuel for the tanks and the helicopters that we'd left there; we would supply the ammunition for the guns and all for them to defend themselves. And when the North Vietnamese did violate the agreement and the blitz started toward the south and the then administration in Washington asked the Congress for the appropriations to keep our word, the Congress refused. We broke our pledge as a government on that basis.

And so, we didn't lose the war. When the war was all over and we'd come home-that's when the war was lost.


Q. How much progress has been made today on fashioning a compromise over having the Congress approve the aid for the Nicaraguan contras? Do you feel that this has to be a showdown vote next Tuesday, in some fashion, that pits the personality of the President against the Speaker in some fashion? Or do you want to see this worked out this afternoon?

The President. Well, I have met and am meeting all the time with Congressmen of both parties. And the plea that I'm making is that this is another one of those things where, historically, in our tradition of closing ranks at the water's edge—we shouldn't be dealing with this as Democrats and Republicans. We should be dealing with it as Americans that have a problem involving our own national security and our relationship with friends and allies.

And frankly, I'm sorry that it's coming to a vote on Tuesday, and I think that was deliberate on the part of the leadership in the House of Representatives.

Q. To embarrass you, sir?

The President. To bring that vote up before we could really sit down and go at all the places where we had agreement and disagreement.

Now, many of the people that I've been meeting with are basically supportive of the plan, except they feel that there are others that are wavering one way or the other, that if we could make some alterations in the plan, keep basically the agreement or the arrangement that we have and the goal, but that there are places here and there and timing and so forth. And I have made it plain to all of them, we'd love to talk to them about that. My feet aren't in concrete on this. Yes, there's leeway. We're flexible as to the details of this program. But how much time do you have? It's Thursday, and they've said the vote must be Tuesday. I think it's immoral to demand that vote that quickly.

Q. Mr. President, in light of that, do you intend to try to seek a meeting with the Speaker, and if so, what would you tell him?

The President. Well, as I say, we've been meeting, and I don't know that I would have a meeting with him, but I've been meeting with chairmen of committees. I've been meeting with groups. I've been meeting with individuals on all of this and have heard some of the proposals and have sent by them my word that this, this, and this in the plan—yes, we're prepared to be flexible. Yes, we'd like to listen to alternate suggestions.

The young lady over there.

Q. What kind of a compromise would you be willing to accept on that?

The President. What's that?

Q. What kind of compromise would you be willing to accept on your proposal for Nicaraguan aid?

The President. Well, one that basically leaves the goal that what we're trying to get, in contrast to the propaganda of the Sandinistas that we're waiting with an upraised club to clobber them, that we want what the contras themselves asked for several weeks ago—the laying down of arms, a cease-fire, and then the coming together in a peaceful negotiation as to how they can restore the original goals of the revolution.

And we've asked for this in connection with the Contadora countries and their participation. We're in total agreement with the 21 points that have been adopted by the Contadora countries. I have called personally and met with the leaders of the neighboring countries—Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador. President Duarte has said this program of ours is the right idea at the right time. I have called Alfonsin, the President of Argentina, as a matter of fact, the President [Prime Minister] of Spain. And I've found widespread support among all of them for this plan.

But within the plan for example, the timing, we've said that the negotiations-we want the church to mediate, so there can be no question about somebody trying to pull undercover tricks. And we've set a period here for negotiation and then a checkpoint at which, if there is no evidence that the one group is trying to negotiate seriously, that then there is a trigger there that opens up more aid from us to the contras.

Now, some have suggested that maybe that period should be longer. I'm very pleased—I'd be very willing to sit down and discuss that with them as to whether it be longer, things to do with the fencing of the money and so forth, things to do with the assurance that the money would go to food and clothing and shelter, medicine for the families of the contras.

Farm Credit Situation

Q. Mr. President, with regard to your budget program, I'd like to ask what response you have to the farmers in the Midwest who say that your program is going to cripple the American family farmer.

The President. Well, we have spent more on farming, I guess, than has ever been spent before in history. And we will be spending some $15 billion this year on that.

We know that there are some unusual problems that have come about basically through the credit situation with farmers and the fact that farmland was one of the great inflationary items that went up as a hedge against inflation and borrowing was done on that inflated value of the land. And now with the reduction of inflation, which I think is of value to all of us, that land price has gone down, and they find themselves unable to borrow or burdened with debts that no longer have the proper collateral surrounding them.

We've put together a program. I don't say that it can resolve everyone's problem or save everyone. But we have put together a program with regard to emergency loans that amounts to $650 million. So far, we've been amazed at the low call on that. There wasn't any great rush to that money.

But I think we have to face one thing: The overall situation of the American farmer is due to government's interference in the first place. The two-thirds of farming that is out there not participant in any of the government regulation or subsidy programs does not have these economic problems and has been knowing an ever-increasing per capita consumption of its produce compared to the farms that are overly regulated with the Government.

Q. One more question?

The President. I had to take his question because he's from WHO, Des Moines. [Laughter]


Q. President Reagan, you say on the budget—it's going to take a lot of giving on a lot of people's part. Well, something near and dear to a lot of people who live along the Northeast corridor is Amtrak. No hope for Amtrak?

The President. Well, see, I'm old enough to remember that in World War I the Federal Government took over the railroads and ran them, and it was a complete disaster, and people at that time said never again.

Well, the Government has taken over the railroads again. We now have a sizable offer for Conrail, and I hope that the Congress will let us accept that offer, and we'll put freight back in the private sector, and we'll get a pretty good chunk of money. And the second, with Amtrak and the passenger traffic, I was told by the president of one of our leading rail lines that if the Government, in the beginning, had allowed the railroads to operate under the same rules and regulations that they applied to Amtrak, they wouldn't have had to give up the passenger traffic. They could have run that at a profit.

But now Amtrak is so subsidized that you have to wonder why people should be taxed to pay $35 for every passenger that gets on an Amtrak train in addition to the fare that that passenger's paying. And I gave one example here about a train in the Midwest that takes passengers in the winter down to Florida for the winter vacations, and I was given some figures that indicated that the Government could buy every one of the passengers on that train a round-trip airline ticket and give them $100 spending money and be money ahead, instead of taking them down on Amtrak. I think it's time for us to admit we don't know how to run a railroad.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

Q. Just one question

The President. Oh, I'm sorry. Yes?

President's Trip to West Germany

Q. Regarding the upcoming trip to West Germany—53 Senators have signed a letter requesting that you drop the trip to the cemetery. In light of this and the wave of other opposition, would it damage German-American relations to seek some other gesture of reconciliation and drop that visit? And secondly, would you say that it was a failure of political analysis to realize the fallout that resulted from the itinerary as it was scheduled?

The President. The failure that I will admit to—and I realize now I should have listened to you— [laughter] —the failure that I will admit to is in the press conference—I didn't completely answer the question as to why I have said no to an invitation to visit Dachau. And I realize now that I'd given those who were questioning me credit for knowing more than they knew about the situation.

Helmut Kohl, sometime ago, back, I guess, when we were celebrating or observing the Normandy landings last June, he and President Mitterrand went to a military cemetery together in Verdome. Now, here were the representatives of the two countries that have been at odds for the war of 1870, the First World War, the Second World War. The impact on all of Europe was so great to see them standing together at this ceremony that Helmut Kohl told me about this and told me how deeply he felt about it.

Now, the summit places us in Bonn in Germany close to the time of the anniversary. And he invited me to accept an invitation to be a state visitor following the summit meeting. And he suggested to me this visit, as he had done with Mitterrand, to a cemetery there. The cemetery that was picked, Bitburg, was picked because at the same time, also, there has been a church service with our military at Bitburg—we have a base there and our Americans—and I'm going there and go to church with them and have lunch with them. And the Kohls will be with us, also.

When the invitation to visit a concentration camp was offered, whether it was my confusion or the way in which it was done, I thought that the suggestion had come from an individual and was not a part of the state visit. And I thought there was no way that I, as the guest of the government at that point, could on my own take off and go someplace and, then, run the risk of appearing as if I was trying to say to the Germans, "Look what you did," and all of this when most of the people in Germany today weren't alive or were very small children when this was happening.

And I know the feeling they have. And I know this government that for 40 years-what he'd asked me to do in the cemetery was that we should start this day now, observing this day as the day that 40 years ago the world took a sharp turn, an end to the hatred, an end to the obscenities of the persecution and all that took place. And today, after 40 years of peace, here we are—our staunchest allies in that summit are the countries that were our enemies in World War II. Now, their leaders have come here and visited Arlington, leaders from Germany, from Italy, from Japan. And this cemetery-we only found out later, someone dug up the fact that there are about 30 graves of SS troops. These were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there. And most of those—the average age is about 18. These were those young teenagers that were conscripted, forced into military service in the closing days of the Third Reich, when they were short of manpower, And we're the victor, and they're there. And it seemed to me that this could be symbolic, also, of saying—what I said about—what this day should be. And let's resolve, in their presence, as well as in the presence of our own troops, that this must never happen again.

Well, when the furor erupted and got as far as Germany, Helmut Kohl sent me a cable. And the cable informed me that there was a mistake, that the Dachau was a part of the state itinerary, the planned trip. Well, I immediately communicated and said, "Fine, that's fine with me. If it is you, the government, that is inviting me to do this, I am more than happy to do it, because I have said repeatedly, and I would like on that occasion to say again, the Holocaust must never be forgotten by any of us. And in not forgetting it, we should make it clear that we're determined the Holocaust must never take place again." And—

Q. Does that mean you're still going to Bitburg?

The President. I think that it would be very hurtful and all it would do is leave me looking as if I caved in in the face of some unfavorable attention. I think that there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery, where those young men are victims of nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps. And I feel that there is much to be gained from this, in strengthening our relationship with the German people, who, believe me, live in constant penance, all these who have come along in these later years for what their predecessors did and for which they're very ashamed.

No, I can't take any more. I'm told that I've run out of time. I've got those Congressmen waiting for me.

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:07 p.m. at a luncheon for the editors and broadcasters in the State Dining Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Regional Editors and Broadcasters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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